In their deeply transformative parenting book Hold On To Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers, originally published in 2004, psychologist Dr Gordon Neufeld and physician Gabor Maté make a compelling argument against a world where parents are replaced by peers. Friendships at a young age are inherently insecure, they assert, and in order for children to feel properly secure and connected, their identity and codes of behaviour must continue to be shaped by their parents, no matter how many friends they make as they grow.

In 2019, the authors added a new section to an updated edition of the book – “A Postscript For the Digital Age” – to make sense of a time when even real-life peers are being replaced by strangers online. As we watch children being increasingly swept up by the digital wave, they write: “How do our children adjust to such surroundings? Unconsciously, their brains equip them for a wounding environment through the usual defences of emotional shutdown or detachment. The problem is with the cost: when we emotionally shut down or detach, we cannot be fulfilled at the same time….Our peer-oriented children have been taken hostage by their own digital pursuit of each other…imprisoned by their insatiable hunger. The more they seek, the less they find.” And so, the authors state, we must meet the challenge of “holding on” to them, to make them less vulnerable to the dark side of the digital revolution.

A ticket to the wild side

Neha J Hiranandani’s new book, iParent: Embracing Parenting in the Digital Age, brings parents just the right tools to meet that challenge. It is well-researched and competently argued and works as a gentle guide to how to take the lead, join our children in the game, and pull them back when needed. It also, vitally, presses us to work on our own digital weaknesses. A sobering reality check, it is also a call to action while noting that iGen is facing unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression and the faults in big tech and how we use it can’t be ignored. It felt like an education I didn’t know I needed.

Most of all, it is a friendly reminder that there is a massive digital divide between our children and us, one that is likely to feel wider as they grow into teens. Nothing unites parents these days like a conversation on the sway of screens over their children. And yet, there is so little we seem to know of that world that it is easy to feel utterly lost in the digital maze that “even Google Maps can’t help us navigate”, as the author puts it. iParent is a ticket to the wild side.

Because it is, by all accounts, pretty wild. As Hiranandani says, we are parenting in a new world order. Here, “ships” are no longer just floating vessels. They are verbs. The ever-expanding digital orbit, its mind-boggling vocabulary and rules of engagement feel more like a rabbit hole of dramatic proportions.

A few months ago, my nine-year-old came home from school full of beans about a petition that his grade had drafted collectively in their digital literacy class, appealing to the IT Minister to make the internet safer for children. They listed a string of issues in the petition – from cyberbullying while video gaming to inappropriate advertisements popping up while web surfing – and asked for better filters and stronger mechanisms to stay safe online. They were just scratching the surface of all that can go terribly wrong when children that young are left unmonitored on digital devices. I was reminded of this petition when I read Hiranandani’s anecdote about how her daughter came upon a weight loss advertisement goading viewers to eat less, possibly having been profiled as a young girl, while she was watching a bunch of YouTube practice videos her piano teacher had sent her.

It made me worry greatly about the kind of worries that even nine- and ten-year-olds have to deal with today. Hiranandani understands and empathises with parents who are new to this landscape, confused and unmoored and lays out the digital map, threading it with insightful, real-life examples and interviews with tweens and teens whose lives are unfolding online in different ways. While weaving personal stories into the narrative, she covers considerable ground: Internet addiction, gaming obsession, online harassment, dealing with easy accessibility to porn, selfie culture, digital burnout, body image issues, virtual intimacy and social media dependence, among other timely issues.

A dizzying, twisted universe

In chapters like “Dope, Baby, Dope”, and “Only Beauty, No Beast: The Frenzy of Filters”, she rolls out the many temptations and #hashtag traps of the web. She follows Arushi, a 17-year-old from Bengaluru, who has “pledged allegiance to Ana”, an anthropomorphic name given to the eating disorder anorexia, to an online forum that helps her subsist on next to no food. It reminds the author of her own struggle with anorexia as a teen. Different generations perhaps do share common fears and anxieties of identity and perception, but their amplification and the playground they are unfolding on are distinctly different.

For Disha, 16, and her friends, when a school friends group drifts apart, anonymous posts with malicious private details begin to swirl on a “toxic” messaging site called, till their school shuts it down. There are 11-year-olds being sent phots of genitals on Snapchat and Tumblr and 10-year-olds being dared to Google “sex”. For Ishaan, time spent on Sandbox, a “booming metaverse” seems to pay off rather well: his “avatar” gets an invitation to rapper Snoop Dogg’s exclusive metaverse party. (This is where I felt the need to use the “feeling disoriented” emoji. You get the drift.) It is a dizzying, often twisted universe that feels out of my generation’s grasp, but Hiranandani does the groundwork to make it make sense for us.

Chapters like “Social Media GPS: Empowering Kids to Find Their Digital Path” and “Drinking Responsibly: How Parents Can Guzzle Less Social Media Dope” are more instructive, setting out a point-by-point approach to help our children maintain digital hygiene and keep themselves alert of dangers. In “Catch Me If You Can: Uncovering Cyberbullying”, she illustrates how phones “offer endless playgrounds of manipulations”. A UNICEF report revealed that 43 per cent of Indian children on social media witnessed cruel behaviour, while 52 per cent had bullied others themselves. Contrary to what we may believe, children can be both the victims and offenders in cases of cyber harassment. If trolling, blackmailing and cancel culture are leading to serious mental health consequences for adults, imagine the devastating impact on children.

It doesn’t help, the author asserts, that India has woefully low conviction rates for internet-related crimes and one of the highest rates of cyberbullying worldwide. The book attempts to shift the “cultural silence” around this trend, and beyond presenting us with reams of helpful data, puts the laws, resources and mechanisms of change front and centre. To the author’s credit, she brings an amiable and accessible tone to all of the sobering, often very troubling information, building a hopeful bridge between parents (“digital immigrants”) and children (“digital natives”).

As we know, not all is lost to (and on) the web. She highlights how the digital world can be used for good, the intricacies of social media careers, the inside track of the Indian video gaming landscape and when parental protection, especially for older children, can go too far to the point of (well-meaning) obsession. For parents who want to meet their children’s fondness for gaming, there’s a whole chapter dedicated to helping you “level up” and become a player in the iGen game. When the time is right, she suggests going easier on firewalls and joining the party. It may not be a bad idea after all.

iParent: Embracing Parenting in the Digital Age, Neha J Hiranandani, Penguin India.